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The US Department of Energy (DOE) has granted China the rights to a green battery capable of powering an entire home for decades, which cost millions of dollars to develop, according to a new report.
Designed in a US government lab near Seattle, the vanadium redox flow battery was manufactured by a Washington state company called UniEnergy Technologies until last year, when a DOE license transfer was effectively sealed its fate to a Chinese company.
The revelation comes from NPR, which investigated the matter in partnership with the Northwest News Network. They found that the DOE violated its own licensing policies.
“This is technology made from taxpayers’ money,” Joanne Skievaski, chief financial officer of Forever Energy, one of several U.S. companies that tried to win the license, told NPR. “It was invented in a national laboratory. [Now] it is deployed in China, and it is held in China. To say it’s frustrating is an understatement.
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The battery’s origins date back to 2006, when some two dozen underground scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory believed that a special mixture of acid and electrolytes could hold large amounts of sustainable energy. They finally proved their suspicions, leading to six years of development and over $15 million in taxpayer dollars to perfect the battery.
Gary Yang, who led the project, reached out to the DOE in 2012 to apply for a license to manufacture and sell the battery. The agency issued the license and Yang launched UniEnergy in the town of Mukilteo in Washington.
But Yang would soon find it difficult to convince American investors, who all wanted faster returns, to join his company. After finally being connected by a fellow scientist with a company called Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd., its parent company and a Chinese businessman named Yanhui Liu, he made an investment.
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However, the following years saw a gradual shift of manufacturing from UniEnergy’s Mukilteo warehouse to Rongke Power in Dalian, China. In 2017, Yang granted the Chinese company an official sublicense, which allowed it to manufacture the batteries itself.
Yang’s original license required UniEnergy to sell a number of batteries in the United States, which also had to be manufactured in America. NPR said Yang admitted to failing to meet those requirements, but did not encounter any issues. By 2019, Rongke Power – and the entire Chinese battery industry – had improved so exponentially that UniEnergy engineers were told they would have to work on it for months.
But Yang refused to send his employees to Dalian and continued to struggle to stay afloat in the United States. In 2021, it made the decision to transfer the license to Dutch company Vanadis Power, which planned to continue manufacturing the batteries in China, set up a factory in Germany and eventually move manufacturing to the United States.
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It was in this license transfer that cracks in the DOE began to appear. After a UniEnergy official contacted a government official at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to inform him of the Vanadis deal, it took only an hour and a half to transfer the license.
“Whether the official or anyone else in the lab or the Department of Energy thought to check during that hour and a half or after whether Vanadis Power was an American company, or whether it intended to manufacture in the States States, is unclear,” NPR noted. “Vanadis’ own website announced that it plans to manufacture the batteries in China.”
The Government Accountability Office reportedly discovered in 2018 that the DOE lacked the resources to monitor its licenses. The agency also had inconsistent policies, used outdated computer systems and acknowledged that it relied on “good faith disclosures” when conducting reviews, NPR reported.
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Forever Energy, which is based in Bellevue, Wash., raised concerns about UniEnergy’s non-compliance. But although the DOE revoked the latter’s license, Rongke Power has already become the world’s leading manufacturer of vanadium redox flow batteries.
“It was beyond promise,” Chris Howard, one of UniEnergy’s engineers, told NPR. “We were seeing it working as intended, as expected.”
China is also currently leading the global race for lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles. To begin with, research conducted by Bloomberg New Energy Funding in 2020 shows that Chinese companies handle 80% of global battery raw material processing.
This meteoric rise can be attributed to the Chinese government’s support for Chinese companies. Moreover, it has also strengthened its ties with countries where lithium is mined.
“These policies allowed them to lay the foundation for an electric vehicle supply chain,” said Albert Qi Li, China-based analyst for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Gate. “Now they are taking advantage of this position to become a world power.”
Featured Images via JSquish (CC BY-SA 3.0) / US Department of Energy
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